Prior to reading this novel I had never read any Zora Neale Hurston, but heard great things. I chose Their Eyes Were Watching God because I felt like this is one of those books I should read before I die, an American classic. Also, it's a banned book and since this week is Banned Books Week, it's my way of celebrating. This novel tells the story of Janie, a light-skinned African American woman living in the south during the early 1900's. Hurston details Janie's struggles against patriarchy and her continuous search for happiness over 30 years and uses two distinct voices to relate the story; that of the lyric narrator and the voices of the characters, who all speak in a thick southern dialect combined with the black vernacular.
Throughout the novel these opposing voices create a distinct divide, which is probably meant to mirror Janie's divide as a woman in a mans world and, as a result of her fair skin, her difficulty to fit in with either race that surrounds her. It also speaks to the importance of language and represents Janie's struggle to find her own voice. While I understand why Hurston employed two distinct voices throughout the novel, I didn't like it. I feel in love with the poetic narration and then was thrown into dialect that required my full attention:
"Daisy, you know mah heart and all de ranges uh mah mind. And you know if Ah wuz ridin' up in uh earoplane way up in de sky and Ah looked down and seen you walkin' and knowed you'd have tuh walk ten miles tuh git home, Ah'd step backward offa dat earoplane just tuh walk home wid you."
Maybe I'm just being a baby but I would rather read Standard Written English. With that in mind, the voice of the narrator was simply beautiful, gracefully thick with metaphors and figurative language:
Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.
Structure and language aside, the overall story Hurston tells is insightful and still relevant today. She explores gender roles and examines race in terms of its cultural construction and how ideas of race are spread. Or course it's a coming of age story, but its more than that. Hurston stresses the power of believing in yourself and discovering your own truths. Janie triumphs over the limitations of patriarchy, race and poverty by never losing sight of who she was and what she wanted. This isn't in my top ten of American classics, but it is a satisfying read.
In a related note, the movie might be worth a watch:
Publisher: Harper Perennial, 1937